Spanish Language Learners

Radio Writing

When kids born in Mexico, but raised in the U.S., return home for high school.


Fidel Avalos, far right, in Nogales, Mexico, in 2011.

Listen to the story on The World here.

Lisa Mullins: After Arizona signed its controversial immigration bill last summer, the Mexican border state Sonora saw a surge of enrollment in their schools. Kids born or raised in the U.S. were coming back to Mexico and many did not read, write, or even speak Spanish. Now Sonoran schools are faced with a problem all too familiar to many American school districts — the task of educating students who don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture. From the Fronteras Desk at KJZZ, Devin Browne reports.

Devin: Fidel Avalos is the only 16-year-old at the 38th Secundaria School in Nogales, Mexico who sounds like this:

Fidel, in a thick Southern accent: Like I said, my English is better than my Spanish.

Devin: Fidel was born in  Mexico but raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. He grew up listening to his mom speak Spanish, but he always answered her in English. He never learned to read or write in Spanish, so when he started school in Mexico last fall, he was lost.

Fidel: Yeah so I had problems with it, I struggle with the words, with the homework that they give me because it’s in Spanish.

Devin: This was a problem not only for Fidel, but also for Sonora’s department of education. The number of migrant school kids from the U.S. has gone up by nearly twenty-five percent in the past year. These families returned mostly because of the lagging American economy and rising deportations. About 9,000 of these students are in Sonora, with varying levels of Spanish. Many teachers aren’t quite sure what to do with them, Nogales’s Superintendent of schools, Sandra Hernandez, says.

Sandra: They say, what am I going to do if he doesn’t understand Spanish? Don’t be afraid, we can work with him — because he’s only one, two, three per class.

Devin: The numbers are still small, compared to the numbers of English learners in say Arizona schools (more than 100,000) or California (more than 1,000,000), so the students learning Spanish in Sonora have an advantage that many kids learning English in the U.S. do not have, which is a chance at real immersion with native speakers. The kids in Nogales are in homes with parents or grandparents who speak Spanish. They’re in neighborhoods where all the signs are in Spanish. This is often unlike the situation many Spanish-speaking kids find themselves in in the U.S., where immigrant children often live in communities where school is an island of English, and everything else around them is in another language.

Sandra: When a kid comes from the United States, they learn Spanish so fast, believe me.

Devin: She’s so confident, in fact, that the program school officials in Sonora are launching has less to do with language development and more to do with emotional well-being. This is because, as Department’s Jesús Ramirez Cordobo notes, most of the migrant students are unhappy here; as many as 80% indicated they want to go back to the U.S. Most are here because their parents were deported, or feared they would be. (Some also checked “a lagging American economy” on a recent survey.)

Jesús: They were changed from one place to another without being asked. Their parents just got them, brought them over or maybe their parents were brought over without asking them. And that made them feel not very good, not very well.

Fidel: When I had just got here, I was so depressed. I didn’t want to go to classes, I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t even want to talk to my mom. I just wanted to go back.

Devin: In addition, Fidel and his friend Marco Torres, who grew up in Arizona, report that their American habits earn them no popularity points with their new Mexican classmates. If the teasing isn’t about their Justin-Bieber-like haircuts, then it’s about their music or their clothes.

Fidel: They told us to stop wearing skinny jeans.

Marcos: And people here tease you because, they call you gringo and stuff like that!   

Fidel: They act like we weren’t Mexicans like them.

Devin: Which, Fidel says, he isn’t. He likes football and friend chicken and a girl named Kalee. He’s too American. And all he wants is to go back to Raleigh — the place he says he’s really from.

Fidel: Yeah, I came here and seen what it’s like and I just want to go back and not come back here. Ever.

Devin: Fidel’s recently applied to renew his visa, so that he can go back to North Carolina and live with his uncle while he finishes high school.  His application is pending.